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The high price of impeachment

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With the impeachment hearings being broadcast live on television, the American public is finally becoming privy to the damning revelations about presidential misconduct and abuse of power. Testimonies from senior officials, many of whom have served the United States for decades, shine light on an administration in which the president and his henchmen care little about legalities, integrity or proper diplomatic conduct.

Star witness Gordon Sondland, a Trump ally and ambassador to the European Union, just confirmed the “quid pro quo,” in which U.S. military aid to Ukraine was tied to President Zelensky publicly announcing investigations into the Bidens. The only problem is that such wrongdoings do not come as a surprise — neither to Trump’s opponents, nor to his supporters.

With the delivered testimonies, impeachment by the House becomes inevitable, though it is still a dangerous gambit and could backfire politically. Especially since Republicans show no sign of disloyalty and Trump’s removal from office by a two-thirds majority vote in the Senate remains unlikely. Democrats’ efforts to strip the president of his powers through constitutional means, instead of defeating him at the ballot box next year, bolsters Trump’s ability to distract attention from his unfulfilled promises, rally his populist base and reinvigorate the outsider status he relishes.

The 2016 election was never a phenomenon sui generis: Trump’s presidency is a symptom rather than a cause. Whether it was his bragging about personal tax frauds, making fun of people with disabilities, calling critical journalists the “enemy of the people,” using a racist conspiracy theory to try to delegitimize President Obama or encouraging foreign governments to meddle in U.S. elections, voters knew exactly the kind of person they were handing the keys to the White House. Public disdain of coastal elites and the political establishment trumped the quest for sane and earnest leadership.

A populist narrative continues to thrive within large sectors of the American public, particularly in the Heartland. Even with a pile of broken promises and a dysfunctional, overstrained administration, the president’s approval ratings haven’t taken a serious hit, as his angry base remains loyal.

The explanation is simple: Irrespective of political specificities and personal misconduct, Trump delivered on the original promise of his election — namely heaping abuse on Washington insiders, embracing political chaos and caring little about norms, expertise and legalities. Furthermore, his detrimental behavior has yet to make a dent in the stock market’s inexorable rise or cause the economy to reel — two factors that make it difficult for any president not to be reelected. The uphill battle for Democrats is made even steeper because Trump has not only managed to take credit for Obama-era economic policies, but has co-opted public anger to his cause against Washington elites.

It is important to see the bigger picture here: Popular trust in government institutions remains battered, and according to a new Axios/SurveyMonkey poll, two-thirds of Americans describe themselves as very or somewhat angry about the way things are going in the United States today. Almost a similar share feels as if they are strangers in their own country, with older people being more likely to hold this opinion. Voters embracing such a backward-looking nostalgia are likely to favor Trump, who dwells on how corrupt elites have steered the United States in the wrong direction.

The country has always been divided, but more importantly, Americans now live in different realities. The mix of deregulation and privatization of the media landscape, along with the Reagan administration’s disposal of the fairness doctrine, opened the flood gates to conspiracy theories, political polarization and bipartisan warfare. Lies and allegations broadcast on radio shows and rightwing media outlets around the clock dissolved the categorial distinction between true and false. This process was further exacerbated by social media outlets and editorial decisions favoring opinion pieces over objective reporting. The creation of partisan silos has had devastating consequences for democracy and the possibility of political compromise.

In a world where there is no distinction between true and false or good and evil, cynicism rises. Such an environment enables Trump, whose lying, racism and misogyny have been documented innumerable times, to portray himself as a moral authority. In his supporters’ eyes, the impeachment process is yet another assault by the “deep state,” his “quid pro quo” with the Ukrainian president is a heroic quest for the real truth, and the invocation of checks and balances by Congress is no more than another partisan attack.

Democrats compound the problem by speaking in ways that only those inside the beltway can understand. Pelosi’s warning that Trump is in her wheelhouse over his attacks on the whistleblower is another example of elite-speak, all but unintelligible to the American Heartland — except for the inference that she was once again insulting the president.

Democrats further failed to explain what Hunter Biden’s qualifications were for being catapulted onto the executive board of the gas company Burisma, receiving tens of thousands of dollars each month in remuneration. For many, this smells more like corruption than what Trump demanded of the Ukrainian President. After all, such covert arrangements are exactly what spurred the populist wave in the first place and fueled anti-Washington sentiment.

Populist discourse is persistent, especially when combined with low public trust in the problem-solving capacity of democratic institutions. It is no surprise that Trump continues to portray himself as a political outsider, promising to drain the swamp and take back control from corrupted elites.

Of course, the opposite is happening, as his nepotistic administration is threatening American democracy and undermining the country’s reputation abroad. But liberals have to understand that roughly half of the United States lives in a different world — a world in which the Bidens are corrupt and Trump is the people’s champion. 

By launching articles of impeachment while ignoring the president’s policy failures, Trump’s opponents are falling into the populist trap all over again — antagonizing the very voters they are trying to win over. For Democrats the political cost of impeachment might therefore be exorbitant.

Mathew Burrows is director of the Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Julian Mueller-Kaler is a non-resident fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies (AICGS) and works at the Atlantic Council’s Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative. 

Tags 2020 presidential campaign Burisma Donald Trump Gordon Sondland Hunter Biden impeachment impeachment inquiry Joe Biden Populism Ukraine

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